On Thursday, for the four of us who are still paying attention, the Red Sox’s pitchers and catchers will report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., for the official beginning of Boston’s 2021 baseball campaign.
If you missed it, and most of us did, the club’s equipment—bats and balls and bubblegum and sunflower seeds and salty tears—headed south on I-95 last week, an especially somber departure.
This year, following a COVID-19 season where the Red Sox were unequivocally one of the worst teams in the MLB, Truck Day—the moniker assigned to this senseless pseudo-holiday—contained no clichéd Dick Flavin poems, or some ass-hat in a Wally the Green Monster costume greeting fans on Yawkey Way waiting for diesel fuel to move the team’s shit to more moderate weather.
So how can we prepare for the arrival of spring training in one of the most unconventional years on human record?
The answer, my friends, lies in lists.
Let’s face it, people love lists; they’re all over the internet—“Top 10 Most Oppressive Cat Imitations of American Presidents” or “16 Regrettable Prom Photos” or “25 Videos of Animals Strangely Copulating.”
So below is my list of the “Top Four Best Baseball Flicks of All-Time.” Granted, there’s an element of subjectivity but it’s minimal.
For the most part, in the words of the 98.5 FM gas-bag Mike Felger, this is “fact, not opinion.”
4. Major League (1989)
So the characters are drawn razor-thin, and the plot is flimsy—the love story is corny and predictable—and after his epic “winning” collapse beside his porn-star “goddesses,” it’s really hard to take anything Charlie Sheen has done seriously. I get it.
And by the end of the movie, you will find yourself half-hating Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), the journeyman catcher with a big heart and bad knees, and hoping the stupid bunt rolls foul.
But there are some huge upsides that place this borderline B-flick in the Top Four.
The first reason: Rene Russo as the quiet, ex-athlete librarian. She certainly gets the blood pumping as the mousy sexpot who drops her pretentious lawyer boyfriend for the ole’ big-hearted Jake.
Also, the secondary characters are amazing. Willy Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) is a loveable loser for most of the film, and Pedro “Fuck you, Jabu” Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), who can’t hit a curveball, is almost always quotable.
And the scene where Ricky Vaughn (Sheen) comes into the game to “Wild Thing,” while viscerally cringe-worthy, is also pretty awesome.
But mostly it’s all about Rene Russo.
3. The Natural (1984)
Roy Hobbs’s (Robert Redford) story is not only the quintessential baseball story; it is the quintessential three-act underdog story that we’ve all seen ad nauseam, i.e. Rocky, The Karate Kid, and Remember the Titans. While Hobbs’ character is almost antithetical to the character in Bernard Malamud’s novel—in the book, Hobbs is an anti-hero, ornery and aloof, who strikes out in the end—your average moviegoer doesn’t want to drudge through an existential piece of fiction or leave the theater bummed out (they’re less likely to consume products when they’re sad). And there are few characters as likeable as Hollywood’s Roy Hobbs. He’s “awe-shucks” handsome and unassuming, a moral stalwart and inspirational for middle-aged people everywhere.
I guess there is still time for me to make something of my life. Or order another round.
And if you’re not misty-eyed when Hobbs’ hits that final bomb into the lights, with the booming soundtrack and the slow-motion trot, you might not have a soul. Go check.
2. Field of Dreams(1989).
Spoiler alert: all of my picks were released in the ’80s and half of them star Kevin Costner.
Field of Dreams is based on W.P. Kinsella’s brilliant magical-realistic novel Shoeless Joe. The title was changed by some studio suit (although Kinsella originally titled his novel The Dream Field) and due to litigious threats by the-late Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, the character named after the infamous recluse was changed to Terence Mann (James Earl Jones). Still, the film manages to capture most of the book’s larger themes while alluding to baseball’s pastoral beginnings in the Elysian Fields. No small feat.
In other words, the movie is about a lot more than baseball, while also managing to celebrate the game’s quiet beauty. Ray Kinsella (Costner) struggles with the same essential question that we all confront (if we care): What makes our lives meaningful?
The answer, of course, is love and our families and our dreams.
It’s also a story about fathers and sons, and if you don’t cry when Ray plays catch with his ghost-father at the end of the movie, you likely suck as a human being.
1. Bull Durham(1988).
Let’s run through the list of criteria that makes baseball movies great. Costner? Check. Filmed in the 1980s? Check. A throaty Susan Sarandon reading Walt Whitman quotes during the voice-over in the introduction? Hell yes.
Former Red Sox manager Grady Little, who once managed the Durham Bulls, was a consultant for the film and the character of Skip (Trey Wilson) was loosely-based on Little. I know, I know, this alone should disqualify the movie, given the fact that he left Pedro Martinez in far too long in Game 7 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium in 2003.
But I can’t. The movie is too good.
Bull Durham braids some of the best qualities of the other films on this list. Crash Davis (Costner) is most of us—specifically me. He has a dream but reality and age is keeping it all in check, along with a discernible dearth of talent. Unlike Roy Hobbs, there are no lights blowing up for Crash when he has the “dubious distinction” of setting a minor league home run record in some obscure Southern minor league conference. Tell me about it, Crash. On top of it all, he is forced to baby-sit Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a talent with a “million-dollar arm” and “a five-cent head.”
The consolation prize is he gets to sleep with the sultry Annie Savoy (Sarandon) for days on-end in a cringe-worthy ’80s montage with a corny soundtrack and toenail polish that threatens to sink an otherwise stellar script.
Still, bang for your buck, it’s the best baseball movie ever made.
Honorable mentions: The Sandlot (1993), Eight Men Out (1988), and 42 (2013)